Before Millbrae was a city, most of it was the country estate of gold rush speculator-turned-Bank of California founder Darius Ogden Mills. A native New Yorker of Scottish descent, Mills purchased 1,500 acres of the former Rancho Buri Buri in the mid-1860s, built himself a 44,000 square-foot mansion and called the spread "Mill-Brae," "brae" being the Scottish term for "hillside." Over time, Mills' estate was sold off in chunks. In 1948 those subdivisions incorporated as the city of Millbrae.
Back in 1927, Darius Mills' grandson, Ogden Mills, leased 150 marshy acres of the family estate to the City of San Francisco. On that land the city built an airport called Mills Field. Renamed San Francisco International Airport in 1955, the former cow pasture is now Millbrae's largest employer.
Millbrae grew slowly at first. Its first large-scale subdivision was a neighborhood called Millbrae Highlands. Located just west of downtown, Millbrae Highlands was established in the late 1920s. It's a classic pre-war neighborhood of tree-lined streets and stately vintage homes that would be equally at home in neighboring Burlingame.
It wasn't until after World War II, though, that Millbrae experienced its greatest growth. The new city exploded, adding residential developments one after the other. The most prominent of these is Mills Estate, built on the rolling hills at the eastern edge of Darius Mills' former estate. With its large, sprawling homes and endless city and bay views, Mills Estate is now one of Millbrae's most sought-after neighborhoods, as is Millbrae Highlands.
One of Millbrae Highland's selling points is that it's within walking distance of downtown and the Millbrae BART and CalTrain station. The 2003 opening of the "Millbrae Intermodal Terminal," as the station is formally known, signaled a shift in Millbrae's planning strategy. After having spent some 60 years establishing itself as a classic California suburb, with residential streets curving into the hills away from downtown, Millbrae has spent the past two decades shifting its attention toward the growth and improvement of its downtown.
After years of efforts by the city's Redevelopment Agency, visitors to today's downtown Millbrae can't help but notice the improvements. New apartment and condominium buildings, some with shops and restaurants on the first floor, have been popping up near El Camino Real, Broadway and the BART station, with more to come. They join new shops, improved sidewalks, a variety of restaurants ranging from historic spots like the 16 Mile House and the Millbrae Pancake House to sophisticated places like the Japanese steakhouse Bashamichi and the Italian O' Sole Mio, and a gleaming new Safeway center in the city's effort to make downtown Millbrae a destination spot.
Downtown is already a destination spot every Labor Day weekend, when the Millbrae Art and Wine Festival takes over several blocks of Broadway. In 2021 the Festival, one of the largest street fairs in the Bay Area, celebrated its 50th anniversary with two days of live music, entertainment, food and of course, art and wine.
No matter how important downtown becomes, though, Millbrae's reputation will probably always be based on its family-friendly residential neighborhoods, highly-rated public schools, commute-friendly location 20 minutes from San Francisco and 30 minutes from Silicon Valley and its fantastic local network of parks and protected open space, including the Spur Trail. Once scheduled to be a freeway that would have cut Millbrae in half, the Spur Trail came to life when local opposition stopped the project and had the land declared open space. Today the Spur Trail runs from Taylor Middle School to the BART station, passing residential neighborhoods, Mills High School and the Millbrae YMCA skatepark.
It's a unique kind of park in a unique kind of place. By the time Darius Mills' mansion burned down, in 1954, it was already surrounded not by estate lands but by the growing, ambitious town that would eventually become the modern city of 22,000 residents that took its name from his vision of serenity: Millbrae.
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